Strange Things of Yore

Strange Things of Yore

In what has clearly become a trend, I am back for the seventh blog in a row with an assortment of “strange things” from the Days of Yore! Links to the previous blog posts are at the end, in case you missed the prior guessing games of bizarre objects with a wee bit of history thrown in. For today, rather than keeping to a theme as I did for the past three blog posts, I latched onto four totally unrelated items. As always, study the extant examples in the collage and try to figure out what they are before clicking the reveal box. Let me know how many you were able to guess!


What are these things?

Young Governess of a child helping a very young child to walk; he is dressed in a little Sailor suit, but he is equipped with a Pudding Cap and also wears leading strings. (1780)

In the eighteenth century, children’s clothing underwent a gradual evolution from constricting garments patterned after those worn by adults to loose fitting dresses similar to those worn by women the standard apparel for both sexes. Along with this philosophy of freedom, the practice of swaddling infants tightly became a thing of the past. While clearly a wonderful, natural way for children to grow strong and thrive, for the awkward infant and rambunctious toddler, the potential for harm to the tender head was a concern.

Enter the safety hat most commonly called the PUDDING CAP due to its shape resembling an infant’s pudding bowl. Essentially an early version of the crash helmet, a pudding cap, or bumper cap, was a thickly padded cap placed directly over the top of the head and above the ears, sometimes with a thin linen bonnet worn underneath but not always. As seen from the example above, while designs and materials varied slightly, in general a pudding cap consisted of a round band with three or four triangular flaps tied at the top of the head.

The outer material could literally be anything, although most often the material was sturdy leather, heavy quilting, velvet, and so on. The inner fabric would be softer velvet, cotton, silk, muslin, etc., and of course it was preferred to adorn the cap with embroidery and pretty ribbons. Whatever fabric choice, the inside of the band and flaps was stuffed with layers of horsehair and wadding until firm enough to prevent injury to the infant’s head if he or she fell.

Portrait of a 3-year old boy with hat and dog, 1783. Abraham van Strij
The Children of Councillor Barthold Heinrich Brockes by Balthasar Denner (1680-1747)


What are these things?

Aren’t they pretty? Yes indeed! Too pretty, one might say, for what they were used for. A fair argument, of course, but then again, if one HAD to be bled, perhaps a lovely porcelain bowl with colorful pictures had a calming effect? Based on the illustration below, that idea falls flat. Or maybe it instilled confidence if the surgeon could afford a costly pewter or silver bleeding bowl?

Whatever the case, as the above examples show, decorative bloodletting bowls were very common. The shapes varied widely and many of them had lines with notations for the volume of blood removed.

Bloodletting was, for centuries, the most common treatment/cure for just about every illness, particularly for those diseases and medical conditions believed to arise from a “plethora” or build up of blood, especially if a fever was a symptom. Surprisingly, as abhorrent as the practice of bloodletting sounds to our modern mind, it did often work, at least to some degree. Bloodletting is a topic worthy of multiple blog posts, but if interested, Melanie Schertz wrote about the practice in A Drop of Blood To Cure You. 

Right or wrong, as the number one, go-to treatment, it makes sense that a surgeon would have a compliment of tools to preform the task. This would include an array of blades, obviously, as well as the receptacle for the blood. The more skilled and professional surgeons would have equipment befitting their reputation and status, and while hardly up to our 21st century standards of sterilization, they would keep them clean and in good repair.

What are these things?

Soap has an ancient history, literally dating back thousands of years. Made of animal fats, lye, and ashes, the process of making soap was arduous and time-consuming. The “recipes” varied slightly over the centuries and depending on the ingredients available, but no matter what the intended use of the soap (to clean the body or clothing or scrubbing pots) the result was harsh, caustic, and did not smell nice. Not until the 16th to 17th centuries did the civilized countries of the East and Europe discover ways to make soaps that were softer and scented. For a long while these recipes were closely held trade secrets, the produced soaps difficult to attain and very expensive.

By the 18th century, improved trade routes allowed the shipping of olive oil based soaps from Naples, Marseilles, and Spain. Around this same time, chemists developing ways to make soap using potash and pearlash (softer, powdery ash) which led to improved qualities of soaps, both soft and hard. Then, in 1791, French chemist Nicholas Leblanc  developed a process for making an alkali (sodium carbonate) from common salt. This new process eliminated the need for potash or pearlash in the making of hard soap, and resulted in much firmer bars of soap. These improved processes also enabled the addition of perfumes into the soaps.

Yet, despite these incredible improvements in the quality of soaps, the actual process of cooking and curing soap was essentially unchanged. Meaning, it took weeks to months from start to finish before soap was ready to be used. By the turn of the century, English soap makers had perfected the art of making both soft and hard-bar soaps. In 1789, Soho barber Andrew Pears not only developed a highly-refined and very gentle soap, he also developed the very first transparent soap. Pears Soap was scented to give it the fragrance of an English garden and was immediately the preferred bar soap among much of the English nobility and affluent gentry. Nevertheless, although cheaper to create than in prior centuries and readily available in England, fine soap was considered a luxury item and as such was highly taxed.

Understanding this brief history of soap is necessary to understand the purpose of the SOAP CONTAINER. Soft, semi-liquid soaps took less time to cure and were commonly used for cleaning clothes, dishes, and other household cleaning. The top quality “bar” soaps required at least an additional month to harden and cure. Hard soap was significantly more expensive and was sold in large slabs from which smaller chunks or bars were cut. Wasting this costly soap, no matter how wealthy one might be, simply wasn’t sensible. Hence the lovely spherical soap containers of silver and brass which became part of a lady’s toilette set. After use, the hard soap chunks were secured inside a soap container, the decorative perforations allowing air to circulate and dry the soap.

Interestingly, some soap containers were sold in a matched set with the other spherical container solid (without the decorative piercings). In a couple of descriptions the solid, airtight container was noted to be for keeping a sponge damp (which makes sense). However, in the description of a matching set from 1739 designated for a gentleman rather than a woman (image above, top middle) it says, “The decorative piercing on the sponge box had a practical purpose: it allowed air to circulate to dry the damp sponge. The unpierced box accommodated a piece of soap, which, in the eighteenth century, was purchased in a ball rather than a bar.” Perhaps one take away is that it depended upon the individual person’s needs! But, to be fair, it is true that some soap makers molded softer soaps into balls. The image to the right are soap balls made from an 18th century recipe. Click the image to read the blog and get the recipe.


What are these things?

The primary object of keeping cows was to supply the needs of the family for milk and butter. Butter was produced as an essential in the diet of most people, the art of making butter, therefore, originating in the home. Not until well into the 19th century was butter commercially produced by large dairies. Prior to modern eras, butter churned by the dairymaids and kitchen staff was pressed into wooden moulds, or molds, and cooled in special larders until firm. Simple box-type butter molds, such as the one to the right and above in the middle, were filled with the butter and then pressed with the plunger into a tight, perfect shape. The carved designs inside the mold or on the lid presented a pretty picture when the hardened butter was released from the mold and served on a fancy silver platter.

Butter-moulds, or wooden stamps for moulding fresh butter, are much used, and are made in a variety of forms and shapes. In using them, let them be kept scrupulously clean, and before the butter is pressed in, the interior should be well wetted with cold water; the butter must then be pressed in, the mould opened, and the perfect shape taken out. The butter may be then dished, and garnished with a wreath of parsley, if for a cheese course; if for breakfast, put it into an ornamental butter-dish, with a little water at the bottom, should the weather be very warm.  ~Isabella Beeton, Book of Household Management, 1861

Wealthy, upper-class Europeans and Americans impressed their guests with elaborate table settings, including butter sculpted into a bas-relief or decorative shape. Designs varied widely, were handmade by skilled artisans, and extremely intricate. Butter molds and butter stamps were always made of wood for a reason. Before adding the butter, the wood would be soaked with cold water until thoroughly saturated. After hours chilling, the wood would dry, the butter then able to slide out easily. Other butter molds, like the one above in the middle, had screws and hinges to aid in removing the molded butter.

I hope everyone enjoyed these weird, interesting objects.
Tell me how many you were able to guess correctly before clicking the spoiler box!
Come back next month for another installment, and if you missed the previous six, the links are below. 


#1 – Fascinating Objects From the Past

#2 – More Unusual Objects From the Past

#3 – Intriguing Historical Objects. Can YOU Guess them?

#4 – Intriguing Historical Fashion Objects

#5 – Identify the Unique English Garden Objects from the Past

#6 – Angling History & Fishing Object Guessing Game

10 Responses to Strange Things of Yore

  1. I got the bleeding bowls and the butter stamps! The top one I guessed was headgear but missed the children bit and didn’t get the soap dishes at all (I thought it was maybe for flower petals to scent a room so I was on the right lines – well maybe, maybe not ?)
    Thank you Sharon, I do love these posts.

  2. I love these posts; they are so much fun. That first one reminded me of a pin cushion at first. I then thought maybe it was a hat of some sort but missed completely that it was a child’s hat/helmet. I got the second one [bleeding bowls] as they reminded me of the S&S movie with Emma Thompson. I can still see her removing the bloody bowl from the bedside of her sister. Shudder. The soap containers were so pretty and I missed that completely. My grandmother had her mother’s butter mold and it was given to my mother when she died. I was always intrigued by the carved design on the inside. Thanks for these posts. They are always so much fun. I love trying to see if I can figure out what-the-heck things are. It is also a look in the past and how things change or are the same. Blessings.

  3. I got the last one but was off on the others. Thank you for sharing this fascinating post. 🙂

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